Sunday, September 23, 2012

Linguistic Lacunae: What Our Sexual Language is (not) Saying

“Language and culture cannot be separated. Language is vital to understanding our unique cultural perspectives. Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures.”  -- Buffy Sainte-Marie
Language reflects and recreates culture.  Cultural attitudes become crystallized in language, which then serves to reinforce those cultural attitudes.  It behooves us to carefully examine our language, to interrogate the meanings lurking within our everyday speech. 

Take our sexual language, for example.1 The way we talk about sex speaks volumes about our cultural attitudes towards sex.  I don't just mean the pervasive sexism of our sexual slang that reveals itself through the construction of women's bodies as dirty and the continued presence of the sexual double standard (Braun & Kitzinger, 2001; Schultz, 1975).  I don't even mean the negative view of sex that becomes obvious whenever sexual terms are used as crude insults.  Of course these themes are revealing and deeply troubling.  But our cultural attitudes are also evinced through what is missing from our sexual lexicon.

Take a moment to think about the sexual words and phrases you know -- terms for parts of the body, sexual acts, all of it.  (Go ahead; I'll wait.)  Then think about what is *not* present in this sexual language.  There are several important aspects of sexuality that get short shrift in our sexual lexicon.

[Note:  Sexual terminology will be mentioned after the jump, so if you are offended by crude or explicit language, you may not wish to read further.]

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Death and the Salesman: The Use of Morbid Sexism in Advertising

As I was reviewing magazine and newspaper ads in preparation for class this week, I was struck by this ad:

Ad in Elle for Louis Vuitton;
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Summer 2010)
Why on earth would any company want to advertise its product by displaying it with a dead woman?  I couldn't understand the motivation here -- what were the advertisers thinking?  On the face of it, associating your product with death just seems like a bad idea.  I can just imagine the conversation in the marketing department --  I know, Bob, we'll show our bag with a dead woman, so everyone will think that our accessories can kill you!  Ok, maybe this ad is just a fluke, one of those advertisements that miss the mark.  But then I found more.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Appreciating the Commonplace

I've been thinking about birds recently.  In particular, I've been pondering the thrill that runs through me every time I see this woodpecker visit our yard.  Sightings cause me to rush to the window, crying out "Look -- the woodpecker is at the feeder!"  Q has been very tolerant of these outbursts (even when they interrupt our conversations), but I suspect he doesn't understand my fascination with this red-headed avian.  Why does this bird make me so happy?  Obviously, it's a beautiful creature, with an elegantly long beak and rich coloration.  The brightly colored birds do tend to catch my eye (as I've noted before, I'm a sucker for color).   

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Great Material Continuum

Among the Ferengi people of the Star Trek universe, there is a belief in the Great Material Continuum.  This represents the trade that they see as the force binding all life in the universe, the river that flows from those who have to those who need.  The Ferengi see the Continuum as an opportunity for profit, but I attempt to traverse the river on a nonprofit basis. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

She *really* likes it: Eroticizing women's labor

I definitely do not look this happy when I am scrubbing the tub.
Image from Deviantly Domesticated (with funny commentary on lots of vintage ads)

Image from wonderfriend
Have you ever noticed how happy the women are in ads for cleaning products?  These advertisements  often glamorize domestic labor and imply that women are positively euphoric while cleaning (at least with the right product in hand).  You too can love cleaning and be floor-happy . . . with our product!  But some of the ads go further, implying that cleaning is an erotic experience for women.  In the Hoover ad below, for example, the woman is in a prone position, touching the vacuum lightly -- there is something intimate, almost romantic about the way they are situated (as well as putting her in a submissive position).   

I bet she'd be happier if
you promised to do the cleaning.

Image from SA_Steve on Flickr

This Pine-Sol ad, on the other hand, presents the woman in an orgiastic glow, presumably due to the stimulating qualities of the cleaning solution.  Who needs foreplay when you have Pine-Sol?

Pine-Sol -- with new aphrodisiac action!
Image from ThoughtCatalogue, who provides an
interesting retrospective of the Pine-Sol lady.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Janitors and Maids

Prompted by a Facebook discussion of my last post:

All this talk about professional cleaners got me to thinking about the distinction between janitors and maids.  Janitors tend to be men, while maids tend to be women.  According to the United States' Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 30.3% of janitors and building cleaners, while they make up 88.6% of maids and housekeeping cleaners.  Why? What is the key difference that makes one more male-dominated and one more female-dominated?

Let's start with the job descriptions.  The job description for janitors in the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that "[j]anitors and building cleaners keep many types of buildings clean, orderly, and in good condition," while the job description for maids indicates that "[m]aids and housekeeping cleaners do general cleaning tasks, including making beds and vacuuming halls, in private homes and commercial establishments."  These sound like very similar jobs to me.  Both involve cleaning buildings, although maids also work in private homes and janitors are involved in keeping buildings in good condition, as well as clean.  I'm still not quite getting the critical distinction that accounts for the gender disparity.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Maid: Unpacking Ambivalence

Sometimes, while I am engaged in some unpleasant cleaning task, I think about how nice it would be to hire someone to do some of these cleaning jobs.  I'm not talking about a weekly whole-house cleaning (I can't envision that, somehow), just having someone in occasionally to clean the kitchen and bathrooms.  When I'm on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, the vision of a professional service sweeping in and leaving behind clean, gleaming surfaces beckons to me.  And yet, apart from the time we hired a cleaning service when we moved out of our rental house (it seemed a good investment to make sure we got our deposit back), I haven't succumbed to the temptation of professional house cleaners.  In part, this is due to entropy (the irony of doing hours of scrubbing because I'm too lazy to call and arrange the service does not escape me) and being worried about the quality of their work (will things get broken or damaged?  I know I can do this safely and carefully -- will they?), but I also have a strong discomfort with the prospect of handing off my cleaning to professionals.  It seems the epitome of bourgeois privilege to not have to do one's own cleaning.  Let's face it, even with all my careful talk about cleaning professionals, the term that comes to mind is . . . maid.  And I'm not ready to have a maid.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Most of the blogs I read are fairly focused.  There are blogs about politics, or art, or science, or the joys of a gluten-free diet.  Some bloggers discuss their daily lives, but that also provides focus.  By concentrating on a particular topic or theme, bloggers can tap into the readership interested in that theme.  Like most of modern life, blogging is about specializing; find your niche and become a voice for that topic. 

The reader perusing my blog might well wonder, "What is this blog about?" While certainly there are themes in my writing, I tend to be interested in a fairly broad range of topics and issues.  If I restrict my focus to just one topic, there isn't enough scope -- it feels too confining, too much like work.  Part of what is fun about being an academic is the potential to explore new ideas and consider all kinds of issues.  I have long resisted the push to specialize, researching across disparate topics and teaching in different areas of psychology and women's studies.  I have pursued a number of creative outlets, as well, including singing, acting, dancing, gardening, herbcraft, beading, and textile arts.  I love the vast scope of possibility I see before me and I want to sample it all. 

Of course, what specialization offers is the ability to go deep and become expert in a particular area.  The dangers of a broad scope of interest is being a dilettante -- knowing a little about many things but not much about any of them, being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.  There are risks to the narrow focus, as well; the specialist may miss important connections between different topics or across fields.  Many innovations stem from the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated areas of interest (as discussed in Jonah Lehrer's new book, Imagine).  The broadly educated person may be more well-rounded and find inspiration across disparate interests. 
“One purpose of a liberal arts education is to make your head a more interesting place to live inside of for the rest of your life.”  -- Mary Patterson McPherson, President of Bryn Mawr College
Q designed a logo for me --
What do you think?
The only real theme of my blogging is that I like to think about things (in psychological terms, this is called a high need for cognition).  And truly, there isn't much audience for a blog that's just think-y, without any clear focus.  But then, my friend and fellow blogger db mcneill, author of the momsomniac blog, nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award.  After being surprised and pleased by the nomination -- thank you, db mcneill! -- I got to thinking about what it means to be versatile.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

What same-sex marriage represents

It's the end of June, and LGBTQ Pride Month is coming to a close.  Last week, I was pleased to attend the opening of the new exhibit at Montgomery College, Portraits of Life: LGBT Stories of Being as well as a day-long consortium organized by MC Pride and Allies entitled How Do You Do It?, bringing together students, faculty, staff, and administrators from a number of local colleges and universities to discuss best practices for creating a welcoming campus for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff.  Both were wonderful events and I am proud that we are making a visible commitment to support the LGBTQ members of our community.  In doing so, we take a stand for a more equal society that does not discriminate based on sexuality or gender expression.

In many ways, we have made tremendous strides toward that equal society, but that progress is mixed with strong backlash, as well.  The recent Pride image of a rainbow Oreo posted by Kraft Foods on Facebook reveals the mainstream corporate support for the LGBTQ community, but it also elicited a stream of anti-gay commentary.  This year has seen similar conflict over same-sex marriage in the United States.  In a historic first, President Obama and Vice-President Biden both came out in support of legal recognition for same-sex marriage (the first sitting president of the U.S. to do so).  However, this endorsement followed the passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships in North Carolina, the 30th state in the U.S. to pass such an amendment. 

In his keynote speech at How Do You Do It?, Luke Jensen (University of Maryland) shared his lifetime of experiences in the trenches as an LGBTQ advocate.  As he marked various components of the struggle (HIV/AIDS, hate crimes, bullying, invisibility), I was struck by how far we have come over the years . . . and how far we still have to go.  For example, attitudes towards same-sex marriage have clearly changed in recent years.  While only 35% of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage in 2001, 47% indicated support in 2012, according to Pew research polls.  A recent ABC poll (April 2012) found that 53% of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage.  In short, polls indicate increasing support for legalizing same-sex marriage, but the country is still split on the issue, with strong feelings on both sides.   

Sunday, February 5, 2012

23 years and counting

Q and I celebrated our anniversary yesterday -- we've been together 23 years.  It feels like just yesterday we met, and yet I can't imagine life without him.  I could say that our relationship works because of how wonderful Q is.  I could describe my initial attraction to him, and how kind and supportive he was to me, a total stranger.  I could then enumerate his many fine qualities (and a very long post it would be!).  This would be a tale of how I met my perfect partner and now we are living happily ever after.  We see that story so often in movies, but it is only part of the truth.  The real story of any successful relationship is how the two people involved built a strong and satisfying relationship that stands the test of time.  I am fortunate because Q and I have worked together to create just such a relationship.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Become an incremental theorist

You've decided to learn something new.  Say you've taken up the banjo*, for example, and you've never played a musical instrument before.  In those first lessons, you find yourself struggling with the first halting notes of "Old Joe Clark" -- this is not as easy as you thought!  Do you say to yourself:  
A.  I have a lot to learn, but I'm getting better with every session.  If I keep trying, I'll be sure to get this eventually. 
B.  I'm not good at this -- I guess I'll never be a really good banjo player.  I'm just not musically inclined.
If you lean towards A, you are approaching banjo-playing as what psychologist Carol Dweck calls an incremental theorist.  That means that you think your abilities can improve over time and that you can achieve this task with sufficient practice and study.  If you tend more towards B, you would approach banjo-playing more as an entity theorist.  You see your musical ability as fixed and unchangeable; banjo-playing is something some people are naturally better at than others, and you are just trying to figure out whether you are one of those gifted musicians or not.   For most tasks, there is probably some truth in both approaches.  Some people have the capacity to achieve a higher skill level than others, but all of us can improve with practice and dedicated study.  Nevertheless, the particular emphasis you bring to the task can dramatically affect how you handle challenges and failures, ultimately affecting your overall performance in the task.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The power of names

Lore and legend has long held that true names have power.  From the Egyptian gods of the netherworld to Rumpelstiltskin, deities and supernatural beings of all kind can be controlled, dismissed, or invoked through saying their true name.  To know something's true name is to know its shape and thus do we leash it and make it bow to our will.

But what is a true name?  Proper names seem particularly unlikely as true names.  Inherited or given at birth, these are merely arbitrary handles that seem to have no connection to our inner self.  But at times these names, random syllables as they are, become part of our selves.  The name has been attached to us and we grow attached to it.  As we become entwined with our name, we may come to see it as at least a fragment of our inner self.
Proper names are poetry in the raw.  Like all poetry they are untranslatable.  ~W.H. Auden

Monday, January 16, 2012

Teaching toward a better world

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
          -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose tireless dedication to a world free of bigotry, poverty, and hatred helped bring us the civil rights movement.  I cannot do justice to the man or the movement, nor can I improve upon the many wise and profound words that have been said by and about him, so I will not try.  I want, instead, to take a moment to reflect on my own commitment to social change.
I sang for social change from 1989-1994.
(I'm in the middle in the back row.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Exuberant enthusiasm and concomitant excess

So often we are advised to practice moderation.  "All things in moderation," they murmur, urging us to sample pleasures in small portions.  We are assured that excess is bad; after all it is, well . . . excessive.

I've never been good at moderation.  I'm full of bubbling enthusiasm that inspires me to fling myself wholeheartedly into one activity after another.  I go from a passionate pursuit of teaching perfection to months of extreme gardening only to then throw myself into a grandiose creative project.  There is no temperate jogging for me -- I'm always running full-tilt.

I've never forgotten some words of wisdom my undergraduate class received during our college orientation.  We were urged to pursue our passions intensely.  If we enjoyed a writer's work, we should read everything we could find by that author.  If mathematics intrigued us, we should immerse ourselves in the study of mathematics.  I found this advice deeply compelling.  The idea of plunging headfirst into something, letting it take me over completely, fit my approach to life.  Moderation be damned!  If we are going to do something, let's really go for it, fully and without reservation.  I wanted to meet life with exuberant enthusiasm, not cautious reserve.  Indeed, in my first year of college one of my friends gave me a sign that reads, I Am Subject To Bursts of Enthusiasm.  I have it on my shelf today as a badge of pride. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Writing is Life

Montgomery College student
In recent years, colleges have been asked to prove the utility of a college education for the job market.  Of what possible use are liberal arts courses?  After all, a course in philosophy or literature does not seem to facilitate the development of specific job skills.  The typical rejoinder is that such courses teach broadly useful skills, such as those involved in research, writing, or analytical thinking.  This is indeed true.  Beyond these skills, though, taking on the challenge of college courses teaches life lessons that extend beyond the academic environment.  Take my my students' experiences of completing a research paper, for example.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Losing the lecture?

When I was a college student, most of my classes were lectures.  I had some excellent professors, who gave inspiring, entertaining, and informative lectures.  I sat in the front and took notes furiously, trying to get every word down.  I still have some of those notebooks, somewhere in my archives. 

In graduate school, when I began teaching, I wrote lectures.  I interspersed some demonstrations and some discussions, as well, to engage the students further, but I stayed within the lecture format, by and large.  After all, that is what professors did -- they organized the information and delivered it through lecture.

In recent years, though, I've shifted away from lecturing in most of my classes.  In part, this came from a desire to engage students in discussions of complex issues rather than have them passively absorb information.  One semester I spent four hours of my Psychology of Human Sexuality class lecturing about female sexual anatomy and physiology and it seemed like a phenomenal waste of class time, particularly since the information was readily available in their textbook.  Given that I can't possibly cover all of the material in class, making myself a conduit for information from the textbook struck me as a poor use of class time, which is, after all, a limited resource.  I wanted the students to grapple with debates, learn to apply the concepts, to actively engage with the material, and lecturing was not reliably accomplishing those objectives.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Interrogating Museum Exhibits

I just gave a talk at the AFACCT conference with some of my colleagues about our experience with the Smithsonian Faculty Fellowship program at Montgomery College.  It was a wonderfully interdisciplinary panel, reflecting the diversity of perspectives in our SFF cohort (Marcia Bronstein, English/ESL [moderator]; Genevieve Carminati, English and Women's Studies; Marissa Prosser, Anthropology; Michael Tims, Biology; and me, Psychology).  We each discussed the museum assignments we created for our students and how that facilitated their learning as well as how that reflected the various communities that interconnect through the SFF program.  I talked about what I learned from the museum curators about reading objects and images.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011

Rabbit on our driveway (6/2011)

New Year's Day is traditionally a day of new beginnings.  I love new beginnings -- the excitement of starting fresh with the allure of pristine new projects.  Accomplishments are just over the horizon, glittering in the near distance.

But taking stock of where we are means pondering the past as well as looking to the future. Yet I'm less likely to mull over tasks completed than to dream of what is to come.  So I'm challenging myself to spend some time thinking back over what I've done.  Rather than compile a list of individual achievements (as in Lisa Call's 100 Accomplishments for 2011), I wanted to think about how my activities fit into my goals.  Perhaps I'm considering my cosmic footprint for 2011 (to borrow a concept from fellow blogger and academic Jill Kronstadt, whose blog is really worth reading).  So in the larger sense, what did I do in 2011?